12 Takeaways from Friday's NBA Action
The evening of Friday, Jan. 17, was a memorable one in the National Basketball Association.
The biggest story came from Boston, where a shockingly unimportant Celtics-Lakers game was elevated to must-see status by the return of star Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who hadn't played a game in nearly a year.
Rondo will have to put in some work if he wants to be called the best point guard in the Eastern Conference this season. Kyle Lowry and John Wall are putting together All-Star campaigns for the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, respectively.
In the West, basketball fans were treated to a pair of marquee matchups. The Portland Trail Blazers continued to affirm their status as a legitimate contender with a tough road win at San Antonio. In Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant put on a show against the Golden State Warriors.
It's Good to Have Rajon Rondo Back
So it's nice to finally be able to report some good news on the point guard front: namely, the return of Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo. The four-time All-Star returned to NBA game action for the first time since Jan. 25, 2013 on Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Rondo's return added some intrigue to what looked to be an unusually punch-less matchup between two legendary franchises. Per ESPN Stats:
Celtics, Lakers are combined 28-51. @eliassports says it is the worst combined win pct entering a game between these teams ever (min. 5 gms)
Rajon Rondo on Kobe affectionately calling him an "a--hole": "That's a great compliment coming from Kobe. I feel the same way about him"
Whether you love him or hate him, it's nice to have Rondo back.
The Miami Heat Can Still Beat Sub-.500 Teams
The Miami Heat are used to putting up historical streaks, but they came into Friday on the heels of an accomplishment they weren't particularly proud of. Per ESPN Stats:
For the first time in the Big 3 era, the Heat has lost three straight games all to teams under .500
Those three losses came against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards. Fortunately for Miami, there are no shortage of sub-.500 teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Heat halted their skid with a comfortable 101-86 win against the Philadelphia 76ers. Chris Bosh led the Heat with 25 points and 5 blocks.
When you're working for your third consecutive title, there will be some lulls from time to time during the long, slow winter months. The Heat are obviously going to be fine.
The New York Knicks Delight in Leaving Shooters Open
Coming into Friday, the New York Knicks ranked 25th in the NBA in opponent effective field goal percentage allowed, per Basketball Reference. Whether from the three-point line, in the paint, or anywhere in between, the Knicks delight in leaving shooters open.
Their strategy of leaving shooters open and hoping they miss worked out rather well against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday...for about 24 minutes. The Clippers missed a bizarre number of wide-open looks in the first half, which allowed the Knicks to stay even at 50-50.
But leaving J.J. Redick open in the corner, and failing to account for Blake Griffin in transition is not a viable long-term strategy. The Clippers finally started hitting their open looks, and sprinted past the Knicks for the 109-95 win.
When you leave shooters open on every possession, you might win a quarter or two, but you won't win many games.
John Wall Does It All
The Washington Wizards won the battle of 18-19 Eastern Conference teams on Friday, climbing back to .500 at the expense of the Chicago Bulls.
What was the difference in the game? Naturally, it was the point guard position. Chicago has gotten solid contributions from Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustine in the absence of Derrick Rose, but neither of them can compare to Washington's John Wall.
Wall led the Wizards to victory with 23 points (on 9-of-15 shooting) and 11 assists in the 96-93 win. He also wowed the hometown crowd by hitting one of the most ridiculous circus shots you will ever see.
The NBA is a point guard league right now, and with the improvement Wall has shown this season, he has Washington in a good position in the Eastern Conference.
Al Jefferson Is Keeping the Charlotte Bobcats in the Playoff Race
The surprising Charlotte Bobcats pulled back into a virtual tie for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with a 111-101 win over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.
Bobcats guard Kemba Walker had a fine game, with 19 points and 10 assists. But the real star for Charlotte was center Al Jefferson, who dominated the Magic with 30 points and 16 rebounds. It was a rare feat for a downtrodden Charlotte franchise, per ESPN Stats:
Al Jefferson: 1st Bobcats player with 30+ pts & 15+ reb since Gerald Wallace exactly 5 years ago today (Jan. 17, 2009)
One year after that feat, Wallace and the Bobcats made their first and only playoff appearance in franchise history. They can only hope history repeats itself with Jefferson's big performance.
Of course, if Jefferson continues to play this well, the Bobcats might not have to wait a whole year to make the playoffs.
Trey Burke Is the Engine That Drives the Utah Jazz
The Detroit Pistons had every reason to think they would beat the lowly Utah Jazz on Friday at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Unfortunately for the Pistons and their fans, nobody told Jazz point guard Trey Burke.
The rookie from the University of Michigan led the Jazz with 20 points and 12 assists as the Jazz cruised to the 110-89 win. It was the first 20-point, 10-assist game of his career.
It won't be the last. Utah has a history of developing elite point guards (John Stockton, Deron Williams), and Burke has a chance to join that elite club.
Coming into the season, the Jazz had the potential to develop an elite frontcourt with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. But those players need a point guard to get them the ball. As Trey Burke goes, so go the Jazz.
The Memphis Grizzlies Are a Dangerous Team
The teams at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race better watch out: the Memphis Grizzlies are coming for you.
The Grizzlies—who made the Conference Finals last season—have caught fire, winning five straight after Friday's 91-90 win over the Sacramento Kings. Point guard Mike Conley led Memphis with 25 points and six assists.
Memphis is now 20-19, the first time it has been over .500 since Dec. 5. The Grizzlies are still 2.5 games behind Dallas for the eighth seed in the West.
But considering their recent history of success, and the fact that they have reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol back in the lineup, the Grizzlies are probably the most dangerous team currently outside the playoffs.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan Are the Most Potent Backcourt Duo in the East
Could the Toronto Raptors get two guards into the 2014 All-Star Game? It's not as crazy as you may think.
The duo of point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan continued to wreak havoc on the opposition with Friday's 94-89 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Lowry (24 points, six assists, five rebounds) and DeRozan (15 points, five assists, five rebounds) buried the Wolves with clutch buckets down the stretch, helping Toronto to their sixth consecutive home victory.
Such heroics have become par for the course for Lowry and DeRozan. Lowry, who is averaging 16.2 points and 7.4 assists per game this season, should be a shoe-in for the All-Star Team. DeRozan (21.2 points, 3.7 assists, 4.6 rebounds) just might join him.
The Portland Trail Blazers Own the Fourth Quarter
As ESPN commentator (and reigning NBA Coach of the Year) George Karl kept breathlessly exclaiming on Friday night, the Portland Trail Blazers are a fourth-quarter team.
They showed their late-game acumen once again in San Antonio against the Spurs, turning a one-point third-quarter deficit into a 109-100 victory.
Portland outscored San Antonio 32-22 in the fourth with a well-balanced offensive attack. Seven players scored at least two points in the quarter. Mo Williams scored six points off the bench, while LaMarcus Aldridge chipped in eight points and three rebounds. But the leading scorer was Wesley Matthews, who put up his nine points the Blazers Way: By shooting 3-of-3 from behind the arc.
The Blazers are not a good defensive team by any means, but they specialize in getting just enough stops in the fourth quarter to get the job done.
The Cleveland Cavaliers Are Finding Some Scoring Balance
The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to prove they are more than just Kyrie Irving.
That is why they went out and traded for a former All-Star in Luol Deng. And they showed real progress in Friday's 117-109 win in Denver against the Nuggets. Though Irving led the Cavs with 23 points, he was nearly matched by Deng (18 points), Tristan Thompson (20 points) and C.J. Miles (19 points).
Cleveland is now 3-2 since the Deng trade. Though Deng will clearly get the most credit, don't forget the recent scoring contributions of Miles. The shooting guard has raised his game in January, averaging 16.4 points per game during the month, per NBA Stats.
That is the kind of scoring balance that can help the Cavs rally to make the playoffs.
The Dallas Mavericks Need Shane Larkin
Dallas Mavericks point guard Shane Larkin had the game of his young career on Friday night against the Phoenix Suns. The rookie out of the University of Miami scored 18 points (on 6-of-8 shooting) to go with five assists and two steals in the 110-107 Mavericks victory.
Though normally a backup, Larkin (26:33) played more minutes than starting point guard Jose Calderon (19:02).
With the win, Dallas climbed a game ahead of the sinking Suns for seventh place in the Western Conference standings. If they want to stay there, or move up, they will need more contributions from Larkin.
Kevin Durant Isn't Human
While no one man can check Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, it might not have been crazy to assume that the Golden State Warriors, with All-World defender Andre Iguodala, could at least slow him down.
Durant set a career high with 54 points in the Thunder's 127-121 win over Golden State. The Warriors kept the game close throughout, but Durant buried them under an avalanche of threes in the fourth quarter.
It was a magical display from a scorer who quite simply defies description. Is he even human? Photo evidence would suggest otherwise.